Loss of sight brings new focus for public transit CEO

Posted at 4:15 PM, Oct 27, 2017
and last updated 2017-10-27 20:41:37-04

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Imagine trying to navigate the busy streets of Kansas City with only sound to guide you.

"Is there a curb coming up? Do I hear that sound from the cross walk to tell me to walk or not? You always have to be thinking about those other things."

This is now Robbie Makinen's reality. He lost his vision five years ago to Ischemic Optic Neuropathy. 

"My eyes are OK, it's the optic nerve that has been cut off," he said. "I lost one eye and then a year later, I lost the other one."

He said it was his oldest son that helped him snap out of his state of shock.

"I heard my son crying," he remembered. "And I said, 'Michael, what's the matter?' He said, 'Well, Dad, I feel sorry for you.' And then he said, 'Is this going to happen to me?' From that moment on, no longer was I going to sit back. I'm going to show my kids there's nothing you can't do."

Since then, Robbie has had to relearn what so many take for granted.

"I don't think people understand how visual their world is," he said. "When you take that away, it's actually trying to retrain your senses and learning to listen more, learning to smell more, to touch more."

With the help of technology and his coworkers, he was able to return to work as the CEO of the Kansas City Area Transportation Authority. Now, with a new understanding of those he serves.

"Before, when I could see, all I based my decisions and my interaction on was statistics or what my supervisor would tell me," he said. "I absolutely believe that this has changed my perspective. It's changed my attitude. It is the driving factor when it comes to public transit, to level the playing field -- to make sure our folks with disabilities have the same service as other folks."

He said before going blind, people with disabilities would tell him the "Share Fare" system wasn't working for them.

"I'd go down to the office and say, 'OK give me the facts on this.' 'Well, actually we have a 90-something percent on-time performance ratio!' 'OK, then we're good.'"

Once he actually needed to use the system, he learned exactly what people said was wrong with it.

"I could not get to any place I needed to go," he remembered. "The barriers that were in place from a municipal boundary, to a state boundary, to different services in this city and that city. I got dropped off at Independence once at the courthouse, and I needed to get down to City Hall and I couldn't do it because it was a totally different service, and I wasn't qualified because I didn't live in that city. It was very upsetting, emotionally. It just felt like I was stuck."

It's become the mission of the KCATA to break down those boundaries.

"Now, with the onset of our 'Ride KC Freedom,' you can download the app and I can get trips just like anyone else can get on-demand trips."

The app is similar to Uber and Lyft, but is more geared towards people with disabilities and those 65 and older. Anyone can use it to book trips, and 10% of the proceeds goes back to KCATA to help people with disabilities."You may not use public transit, but you depend on people every day who do to the tune of 15.9 million boardings a year," he said. "It's a big deal."